Chilled nudes and cold flesh

Lucian Freud
August 9, 2002

Tom Rosenthal has little taste for 'Cézannewiches', but he finds much to savour in Lucian Freud.

There is no reason why serious art should not be promoted on the same scale as a Hollywood blockbuster; major museum exhibitions are expensive to mount and media coverage is essential to sell highly priced shows. Yet sometimes the commercial gloss can leave one gasping; who can forget the unspeakable vulgarity of the Tate's Cézanne exhibition when British Rail-quality "Cézannewiches" were put on sale with other equally tacky merchandise?

The Lucian Freud exhibition at the same gallery was heralded with similar commercial zeal to that of the film Spider-man . Indeed, the Second Coming could hardly have attracted more gushing attention. Every broadsheet carried long profiles or carefully manicured "interviews", which concealed more than they revealed, several days or even weeks before the show opened to capacity crowds and almost unanimously adulatory reviews. Even at 10.30 on a weekday morning the exhibition was uncomfortably crowded so that the organisers of all that hype must be as self-satisfied as any government spin doctor who has just successfully sold university tuition fees as the latest panacea to the crisis in higher education.

Not for the first time one of the few dissentient voices in this chorus of approval was that of the Evening Standard 's Brian Sewell. A scholarly man, who often takes delight in being the only one in step, he issued a resounding corrective to his eagerly and easily pleased colleagues with phrases such as "a minor painter... a footnote in the history of art". He also offered a reluctant gratitude to Freud for not being swept along by the tides of fashion.

Freud is a man who paints seriously at a time when the Turner Prize becomes ever more an object of ridicule, when dreary home movies pose as video art, conceptualism rules for those who can neither draw, paint nor think, and the same Tate that shows Freud can spend many thousands of pounds of public money on the canned excrement of an obscure Italian called Manzoni. One cannot but be reminded of Lucian's grandfather Sigmund Freud who theorised so elegantly about the equation between excrement and gold.

Only posterity will be able to establish whether Freud is simply flavour of the month or is really the greatest living English painter or, tout court, the greatest living artist. It is, after all, only a matter of days since Rubens's Massacre of the Innocents overtook Van Gogh and Picasso in the saleroom, and hardly a month goes by without some absurd sum changing hands for a work of art that in 50 years' time or less will be embarrassingly banished to some museum's reserve collection. A row of steel and plexiglass cubes by the contemporary minimalist Donald Judd recently fetched £3 million.

Freud is indubitably, in an age when "easel-painter" is a term of denigration, a real painter who despite - or perhaps because of - the paucity of his oeuvre works singularly hard on each picture. He is part of the western canon, part of the mainstream European painting tradition. Sewell, in my view correctly, sees in his work the influence of the English neo-Romantic John Craxton and the German Otto Dix.

William Feaver, author of the catalogue of the current exhibition, presumably has Sewell in his sights when describing, in Christian Morgenstern's phrase, as "aesthetic weasels" those who see the influence of Dix and other Germans in Freud's work.

In fact the sheer brutality and chilling efficiency that Freud brings to human flesh is almost pure Dix updated to our own time. There is a Dix Half-Length Nude of 1926 in the Stuttgart Gallery where the merciless depiction of female flesh beginning to sag is as clinical as anything now on show at Tate Britain, and in which the eyes are depicted with the glittering, reflective, almost tear-filmed glaze used so often by Freud. When the Dix painting was shown ten years ago in the same gallery, the cataloguer wrote of the subject: "She is utterly exposed to our view and we are made to feel voyeurs, because we feel (or believe we feel) her discomfort. Dix insists on capturing what he saw, no matter what the consequences."

One might also find in Freud's female nudes the legacy of the Viennese Egon Schiele. Both Freud and Schiele use a strong voyeuristic element, particularly in the contorted postures inflicted on the models, in which they lie exposed, their labia as often at least partly opened as closed, in a manner not entirely different from what one finds in pornographic magazines.

To be fair, while that Dix half-nude had a distinct aura of coercion about her, Freud's, like Schiele's, never seem unhappy with their lot and one can frequently surmise that the notoriously many hours of sittings - or lyings - are spent, once arranged in the desired posture, sensibly asleep.

Freud's best-known nude male model, the HIV-positive performance artist Leigh Bowery, once interviewed the artist in a magazine called Lovely Jobly :

"In your work the pictures of naked women are always of straight women while the pictures of naked men are always of gay men. Why is that?

"I'm drawn to women because of their nature and to queers because of their courage."

"Do you like there to be a sexual possibility in your pictures?"

"The paintings that really excite me have an erotic element or side to them irrespective of subject matter - Constable for example."

While one can see Sigmund commenting on the erotic elements of the spire of Constable's Salisbury Cathedral , I suspect that Lucian has reserved the bulk of his erotic charge for his human subjects, and in this he is probably the only important British painter since Matthew Smith to have portrayed the female nude with such a devotion to sensuality.

Sometimes this is applied to his two wives, Kitty Garman and Caroline Blackwood, both of whom are brilliantly rendered erotically and aesthetically, although they both sometimes seem ill at ease. In Girl with a Kitten , Kitty is shown holding a kitten in a right hand so closed that the feline neck has disappeared, as if it is being viciously strangled, and its eyes are as wide open and glittering as to match those of its owner. In a later portrait of Kitty, Girl with a White Dog of 1950-51, Kitty bares a single breast while wearing a greeny-yellow towelling bathrobe, and every skin blemish is accentuated, with even a hand looking blotched as if by water damage. It is a revealing picture, but also a remorselessly cold one. The flesh so vividly rendered makes you think, despite its erotic pose, that it is chill rather than warm to the touch, and one cannot fail to understand why she looks almost fearful. The dog looks much happier.

When reading Feaver's book, one is prompted to re-examine his predecessors. Bruce Bernard's 1996 book on Freud is simply a brief introductory essay to precede a lavish collection of large reproductions based on the earlier Whitechapel Gallery retrospective in 1993.

Much more interesting is Lawrence Gowing's 1982 book. Unlike Bernard, and now Feaver, Gowing is not reluctant to analyse critically Freud's style, content and mannerisms and one is reminded by the book that Gowing was both painter and teacher as well as an interesting writer on art. Gowing wrote:

"The way that Lucian Freud's world presents itself to him and to us has been inseparable from a chill of incongruity that preserves its particularity, its otherness, as if a coldness in the figurative substance made the visual contact electric and compelling." What a perceptive and indeed provocative phrase that "chill of incongruity" is. The incongruous is or can be many things but, I suspect, to most of us it is odd and/or, usually comical. "Chill" is an odd, even incongruous pairing with "incongruity", yet it seems to work perfectly for Freud.

Gowing also uses, later on in his rather brief text - why are there no long, exhaustive books on Freud? - another almost defining phrase: "a coiled vigilance and a sharpness in which one could imagine venom." One senses, as one cannot quite do with Bernard and Feaver, that Gowing's text was not approved in advance by Freud.

One of the most touted of Freud's works is Large Interior W11 ( after Watteau ) of 1981-83. It consists of a fairly glum, contemporary family group (with a mandolin and a fan to evoke the 18th century), perched uncomfortably tightly on an iron bed on a bare floor in a crumbling corner with exposed pipes and a tap draining into a sink. It would be better subtitled Contra Watteau . Where is the gaiety, the joy, the sheer pleasure of Watteau? Brilliantly executed, it is all technique and no heart.

Where Freud has a considerable impact is in his formal portraits, whether commissioned or not. His picture of Francis Bacon is surely the image by which many of us recall an artist who had little in common with Freud, save a mordant ruthlessness and a refusal even to contemplate the decorative or the pretty.

One of Freud's most haunting images is his portrait of the neo-Romantic painter John Minton, which Minton commissioned himself. A lesser artist than Freud, he was nonetheless a distinguished painter, and his selection of Freud was significant. Minton was a deeply haunted, even tortured man; a homosexual in the dangerous pre-Wolfenden years and, with Bacon, a dedicated consumer of champagne at Muriel's Colony Room. He was doubtless one of the men mentioned by Bowery and one of the "queers" whose courage Freud so admired. Freud's portrait of him said all of this and much more, and it upset many of Minton's contemporaries and friends when it was completed in 1952. Yet one cannot help wonder how prophetic the picture was, since Minton committed suicide in 1957.

His biographer Frances Spalding took the view that "Minton must have recognised its truth for he bequeathed it in his will to the Royal College of Art where it hangs as a memorial to him". Spalding also maintains that when Freud learnt of the suicide, he felt sure that Minton, who was by nature methodical and neither narcissistic nor vain, had commissioned the portrait with his death in mind.

One of Freud's oddities is his reluctance to name his sitters; Minton, Christian Berard and Bacon are unusual in being named. But then, as Feaver reports, Freud has said: "The only point of titles on the whole is to distinguish one picture from another, rather like a Fugue in C Major (Moonlight)." If one looks at Man in a Chair of 1989, credited to a private collection in the 1993 Whitechapel Show (and not in the Tate show), one needs to know what Lord Rothschild looks like to get the point. The celebrated Interior in Paddington of 1951 is in fact a portrait of his acquaintance Harry Diamond. Another Man in a Chair is to be found at the Tate and is of Baron Thyssen, the billionaire Swiss industrialist and major art collector whose collection Prince Charles and Mrs Thatcher failed to secure for this country and now adorns Madrid.

Surely the viewer should not have to acquire this book to discover who the sitter is. Is Freud perhaps declaring that he is more important than his sitters; is he placing himself on some podium of vanity here? Might he perhaps go the whole hog and entitle his now notorious portrait of the Queen - it is not clear whether its absence from the current exhibition is by fiat of Queen or Freud or by mutual agreement - Old Lady Wearing a Crown ?

In fact, the Thyssen painting is endlessly fascinating, whether as an illustration that wealth cannot buy happiness - or an act of subjugation of subject by artist. The vast hands, clutching his thighs, are grotesquely disproportionate to his arms and torso. No doubt the baron employs only the best tailors, but here he sits on a velvet chair, next to a pile of rags, with a single-breasted suit whose jacket has both buttons done up so that it is crumpled at the front and all rucked up at the back and seems to cement his aura of being not only miserable but physically ill at ease as well. There is little doubt that the more powerful of the two men involved in this transaction is Freud.

Certainly there is an element of control-freakery about the exhibition and the catalogue. It is doubtless Freud's wish that the paintings are not displayed with instantly visible identifying labels. Instead we get the non-user-friendly method of having a group of numbers and titles discreetly stuck on the wall at the beginning of each section. As there are sometimes as many as seven or more paintings in a section, this is as helpful as those American waiters who recite at breakneck speed the list of "specials" not on the printed menu, leaving all but those with phenomenal memories merely confused.

The book is therefore, with its well-printed reproductions, an essential adjunct to a visit, but it also raises issues of its own. For an octogenarian who has led an extraordinarily rich life, a mere two sparse pages of chronology is just about as biographically exiguous as you can get, is therefore more or less useless and reeks of Freudian control.

Feaver's text is most interesting and illuminating when it draws on Freud himself and it is Freud's own views and obiter dicta that, understandably, carry most weight. Again one sees the controlling hand of the artist.

Perhaps this is inevitable. Perhaps anyone of such immense established fame and reputation is entitled to this degree of control, but it smacks more of the insecure Hollywood star than this country's leading painter.

One hears that Feaver has been selected as Freud's biographer; it will be interesting to see if such a book will appear in the artist's lifetime or posthumously. Either way, given the power that artists and their estates possess - and exercise - over the right to reproduce their paintings in biographical works, it will be intriguing to see how full and frank the account of such an unorthodox and fascinating life will be.

Tom Rosenthal is the author of Sidney Nolan , and was formerly chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts. The Freud exhibition is at Tate Britain until September 22.


Lucian Freud

Author - Willian Feaver
ISBN - 1 85437 439 7 and 399 4
Publisher - Tate Publishing
Price - £34.99 and £24.99
Pages - 240

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments